Archived Story

Shelter door locked accidentally

Published 5:28pm Friday, January 27, 2012

Dear Editor,

This is a response to the comments that were printed in the paper about our storm shelter. I myself monitor the weather and have been unlocking the shelter early. In this incident, the shelter had been unlocked for around 12 hours before the first watch was posted.

The way the door handle is built on the shelter, someone trying to open the door will be prone to lock it before they get the latch open. By rules set forth by the Emergency Management Agency, the shelter must be kept locked until a watch is posted. Then, the shelter may be unlocked where citizens can come and get in the shelter.

The only time the shelter is to be manned by department officials is when a tornado warning occurs. In this case, someone had locked the shelter after it had been unlocked. The members of the department went to responding when the warning was issued. You have to have a little patience because we have to get our own families up and going as well. I myself was working when this took place, but I did have personnel on call.

As this is a volunteer department, there is no way you can just have one person scheduled to make sure the shelter is open. We as a department keep a close eye on weather issues, and we are determined to keep everyone in our area safe.

We strive to make everyone happy, but you’re never going to make that happen. I myself have been volunteering my time for about 18 years. My granddaddy was a key leader in these rural fire departments and volunteered his time for 20-plus years until he passed away. He always told me that in this business you will never be able to satisfy everyone and nobody will ever say “thank you;” they will always have something to complain about.

So in the best interest of your community, come on out. We have a membership application waiting for you to fill out, and you start volunteering your time. Until you do it, you should not be able to complain about how certain things need to be handled. Our meetings start at 6 p.m. on the first Monday in each month at Station 1, and the third Monday of every month at Station 2.

Again, we appreciate any and all support and will still be here helping people in need.

As for other county divisions, they get paid for their time and service, including (EMA Director) Bill Collum. This may just be misunderstood because we as rural volunteer fire departments do not.

Robin Ellison, Chief, Union Grove Fire Department

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  • pignose83

    I see several problems with this letter. For starters:

    “In this incident, the shelter had been unlocked for around 12 hours before the first watch was posted…”
    “By rules set forth by the Emergency Management Agency, the shelter must be kept locked until a watch is posted.”

    You contradicted yourself by the second paragraph. If you knew you were not going to be available to man the shelter, shouldn’t you have had a man in place to do so? Instead, you unlocked it early, knowing that it had a faulty lock, against said EMA rules. So communications had to page out your department to unlock the shelter AFTER a warning, instead of when the watch was posted earlier.

    I’m not saying that mistakes don’t happen, we are all only human. But, being in a leadership position, you should know when to accept your mistakes and deal with those properly to ensure that they don’t happen again. Instead, you have taken zero responsibility in your role and nothing to correct the problem by your response.
    Also, as you mentioned, you are in a volunteer position. If you say you are going to do something, you should do it to the best of you ability. At least, that’s what my grandaddy taught me.

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  • Bamagirlz

    As I have been saying I appreciate all the volunteers who give their time to serve their community as well. I too was angered by the Fire Chief comments, and other things as well. I agree it is time to move past all that and work out a plan to ensure this never happens again. Me and my husband would be more than happy to help out the community as well by being a keyholder for the shelter and I will even volunteer my time to keep the shelter clean. My husband and I plan on being @ the meeting Monday and I encouraged others in the community to attend also. Thank You Madisyn1 for discussing these matters w/ us!

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  • Madisyn1

    Thank you so much. We would be more than happy to have anyone willing to help and volunteer at our meeting monday night. We always appreciate any and all help we can get. Like with myself, I have small children and my husband works nights so there is no way for me to get out in the middle of the night to unlock the shelter. We need the communitys help and until we finally received a call back from bill collum this morning we were not allowed to give out keys to any non-members. He has given us permission to do so and is requesting some sort of schedule be made, so hopefully with emough help noone will find theirselves in this position again. I myself have been more than aggravated with the whole ordeal and am while everyone else seemed to be getting answers for their concerns we have been unable to do so until now. Thanks again and I will look forward to seeing some new faces Monday.

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  • zoninggirl

    Madisyn1, thank you for taking the time in defense of your department. I do apologize for my comments if it seemed to say that anyone’s life was more important than anyone elses. There’s lots of blame that can go around to everyone. I haven’t personally come to volunteer my time for firefighting, I am a 51 year old woman who cannot fight a fire. However, I can volunteer to be a part of a section of people who coordinate to ensure someone would be there to unlock the shelter whenever bad weather is due. As the Clanton Advertiser stated, “if there are problems, lets address them now” and I agree. After my initial anger at the Chief’s remarks, I know we cannot get anywhere when no one accepts any responsibility. Maybe the department was caught unawares with this since this was the first real severe outbreak since last April. This is the time we pull together, not bicker.

    I assume from the invitation of Monday’s meeting that it’ll be open to those of us who have suggestions and wish to volunteer our time for this shelter. We’ll even be willing to come and clean it and help to keep it clean and we’ll stand by our Fire Department as well. I work daily with firefighters, they are a different breed. The heroism is built into a real firefighter and I respect anyone who heeds that call whether they are paid or not. More respect for those who volunteer it. Still, with those keys, our lives are left in the hands of the keyholders. I hope you can see why emotions are running high on this important issue. Excuses from anyone on this just shouldn’t be given out.

    I think we should leave the animosity behind and move forward toward making this shelter work to the benefit of the entire community. I was so very happy when I learned of this shelter and so totally disppointed when I was locked out and left in the storm.

    I hope we’ll be welcomed at your Monday’s meeting. I hope many persons reading these events will appear as well.

    I believe if you reach out to the community, we will respond. I have lived here 12 years and never had any contact with your department other than when they visited with fundraising and, if possible, I always participated in that.

    I will see you folks Monday. Thank you for the invitation to attend and volunteer on the shelter committee. I hope you find we’ll have lots of ideas and will do good work for Chief Ellison if you folks would allow us to be of assistance and will allow us the chance to speak.

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  • Bamagirlz

    Madisyn 1, I guess you were not aware that I did speak to a couple volunteers and the Fire Chief beforehand. I do not wish to call the volunteers I spoke w/ by name, but I do know their names. I spoke w/ the volunteer that unlocked the shelter first and ask the volunteer about a quicker and better plan of action to open the shelter, and I also asked is there anyway I could get a key b/c I didn’t live far away and I wouldnt mind helping out on getting the shelter unlocked. The volunteer that unlocked the shelter seemed irritated that I was asking him anything and he was rude to me. It was not my intention to upset him I was offering to try and help! I will even volunteer to clean the mildew that has built up on the benches and ceilings in the storm shelter!! Anything to help! I was told by the volunteer No they weren’t allowed to hand out keys to the community, so he instructed that if I have any concerns about how the shelter is opened I need to call Bill Collum @ EMA and so I told him OK I will call Bill Collum. Then I thought well it makes sense to first speak to the Fire Chief to see what he might have to say about the incident. So, later on 1/23/2012 I spoke w/ the Fire Chief to explain the incident to him. When I told the Fire Chief about the incident and stated to him that there needed to be a better and quicker plan in place he didn’t really seem that concerned either, as a matter of fact he seemed irritated that I called him. I also ask the fire chief if I could get a key b/c I live nearby and I wouldn’t mind unlocking the shelter he also said NO. Nobody I spoke with within the fire department seemed to concerned. So to address this problem I had to go elsewhere to voice my concerns. Just wanted to let you know Madisyn1 that I did talk with people within the fire department beforehand and noone was interested!

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  • Madisyn1

    The main issue is that everyone calling the EMA office is being grosely misinformed about any contracts or information concerning those storm shelters. Everyone certainly has a right to speak their mind about their local volunteer fire dept, we just ask that you let the dept in on it before talking to the newspaper and news. Union Grove Fire Dept has yet to have a single phone call concerning any of this…How are we suppose to address any issues if we don’t know there is one. I just feel like if you are going to complain at least tell the dept before you tell everyone else, that is the only right way to go about it. We are only human and when someone calls us uncaring, inconsiderate, slow and a few other things it is only human nature to be defensive whether you are a fire chief or not, and I can assure you, noone cares more about the community of Union Grove than the chief and the members of the fire dept. It is just hard to hear alot of negative when we are only doing the best we can with what we have and noone is offering to help or making any suggestions ….also thanks windstorm, we will definetly check into remote access for the shelter.

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  • Madisyn1

    The comment from the chief was made in regards to Bill Collum stating that the fire depts are in breach of contract and that they are required to unlock and man the shelters during the storms……Easier said than done, during the day we have no vulunteers around to open the shelter, they all have full time jobs. Which means the next available dept is paiged out to cover any calls we may have. That issue was brought up when the EMA contacted us about putting the shelter there. They were told at that time that we would need help making sure the shelter was open when needed. For several weeks prior to this incident the department has been trying to reach Mr Collum to see if we could give keys to members of the community to help us, with no reply. Also Mr Collum keeps talking about breach of contracts and things, but not a single member of that department has seen or signed any type of agreement. As a member of the department I can say that we are sorry for any mistakes that may have been made. But…you cannot fault the chief for standing up for his department when nothing was handled wrongly…the shelter was unlocked prior to the storms, you cannot blame the members for someone else locking it…it was an honest mistake…The defensiveness come into play because articles are being put in the paper and fox 6 news contacted, and not a single person has contacted my house to hear our side of the story…everyone is going off their own opinions of what happened…had the upset parties just contacted the department, we could have worked together to come up with solutions, but until it was read in the paper the chief had no idea there were any complaints…it is still the only time anything like that had happened and I can assure you it won’t again…I no longer have a key because if the keyholders are going to be bashed in the papers everytime a storm comes through, then I certainly won’t no part of it…the part about not getting paid and being volunteers is in reference that the department cannot force or make anyone get out of their bed at night to open that shelter, all we can do is ask…and because we have families and jobs too, we will not always be around to make sure it is opened…The next meeting will be 02/06/12 at station 1 and Bill Collum has approved to allow the department to give out keys to community memebers…his solution is to have people sign up to make sure it is open for a month at a time…so we will have keys and a signup list…I just wish the people would have contacted us and scheduled a board meeting and gave the department a chance to come up with a solution to the problem without the entire state thinking that the whole community is out to get each other…The only phone calls we have received are from people who live outside the county, wanting to know what happened.

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  • Will Ray

    “So in the best interest of your community, come on out. We have a membership application waiting for you to fill out, and you start volunteering your time. Until you do it, you should not be able to complain about how certain things need to be handled.”

    In other words, the people only have a right to PAY for these things but not the right to complain about the way they are managed, unless you are a vounteer firefighter? Unless you are a vounteer firefighter, then just keep your mouth shut? That’s pretty arrogant.

    If, as you say, the design of the lock is such that it might lock itself inadvertently then get the design changed, but DO NOT tell the people they should only make positive comments about it unless they are volunteer firefighters. You haven’t forgotten which country this is, have you? Bottom line: If the thing was locked when folks needed to get in it, whether inadvertently or not, then it was about as useless as mammory glands on a bore hog. And people could have been blown away waiting to get in it.

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  • Bamagirlz

    Madisyn1, I would like to again say that I appreciate every single man & woman that volunteers their time, and I understand that y’all have lives outside of volunteering, but when you agree to accept the keys to unlock the shelter the responsibility becomes yours. If its a problem for you to unlock the shelter b/c you have kids I understand that no doubt they need to take the burden of being a keyholder off of you and give it to another volunteer. I am also very aware that volunteer means y’all do not get paid. I know that volunteer means you choose to give your time, that has been made very clear, and I thank you for your service you do in volunteering your time. But I have given up on anyone @ the department admitting a wrong occurred and sincerely apologizing for that door being locked 30 minutes into a Tornado Warning. Accidentally locked or not the fact is that could have cost someone there life if the F2 tornado packing 135 MPH winds had of come our way early that morning. You also referred to members of the community saying hurtful things. It isn’t my intent to say anything hurtful, it was the Fire Chief that was the one to say hurtful and insensitive things about the community in his article. If EMA would allow people in the community to be a keyholder I would be glad to help out by unlocking the shelter, b/c my family and I plan on using the shelter when severe weather strikes our area. Before 1/23/2012 I hadnt used the shelter since 4/27/2011. Thank goodness there really hadn’t been that much if any bad weather since that day. However, it makes me glad to know that steps have been taken to ensure that no one in the community will ever have to arrive to a locked storm shelter in the middle of a violent storm again.

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  • Madisyn1

    I think this still didn’t come out right. I think the point was that we volunteer our time when we can but we are certainly not a paid department and we can not operate that way…It is really disheatening that members of the community would rather say hurtful things to the members and write articles in the paper rather than try to help find a solution to any and all problems. This particular situation has carried on like it has happened several times when in reality this is the only time. And steps have been taken to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. I for one am thankful for the chief standing up for his members, because if you don’t know the entire story or have tried to find out, it was simply an accident.

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  • Madisyn1

    I’m afraid everyone reading this article has grossly misinterpreted it’s meaning. It was in response to the comments made directly to members of that department that their families were no more important than anyone elses when they tried to explain the delay. People tend to take for granted that there departments are there and are always prompt. Unfortunatley they are just that, VOLUNTEER. There are no laws or otherwise that say when you become a volunteer that you have to be all the time. Sometimes every member of that department is at work and had this incident occurred in the middle of the day, there are not any members around during the day, most of the time, to unlock it. Agreement or not, that is the case and without the communitys help there are going to be times where the shelter cannot be opened. The mentioned agreement does not cover those instances. That is why the department has tried repeatedly to get permission to give some keys out to members of the community to help with making sure the shelter is open. I don’t realy see where any contract was broken…the shelter was unlocked until someone going in and out accidentally locked it and noone knew it until communications contacted the keyholders. I am a keyholder but will gladly give it up to someone who uses the shelter. There is no way for me to get out in the middle of the night during a storm with 2 kids in tow to unlock it. I’m afraid Bill Collum is more apt to answer phone calls from everyone else but has not returned those phone calls yet.

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  • Bamagirlz

    Windstorm Protection that is an idea, but I am a resident of this community and I do not want to depend on a remote control type lock.The volunteer fire departments that have shelters have an agreement in place with EMA that says the shelters muust b open during a Tornado watch and manned by someone from the department during a Tornado Warning and when they fail to come out and open the shelter properly they are in violation of that agreement. The Chief and the volunteers agreed w/ EMA to open the shelters and if they didn’t feel they could handle that responsibility it should have been discussed beforehand. I think the plan they have in place is a good one, but it is up to the Fire Chief and the volunteers to commit to what they agreed to do.

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  • Windstorm Protection

    There are many details that need to be taken care of when emergency strikes, and people need protecton. Obviously, accessibilty of the community shelters is very crucial: if people can’t get into the shelter – they are not protected. At the same time – finding ways to minimize tasks and steps for emergency personell or volunteers will free up some of their time, allowing them to take care of other things. There are other ways to arrange shelter accessibility. Some lock manufacturers offer multi-point locks and panic devices, that have been designed and tested for tornado shelters, that can be locked and unlocked remotely. Those locks can be integrated into emergency alarm system, unlocking shelter when siren is on, or it could be a switch at police department or a fire house. In case of a power failure, those locks usually become unlocked.

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  • Bamagirlz

    I am also a citizen of this community that would first like to begin by saying I give thanks when thanks is due. I am very thankful for the men and women who choose to volunteer and I really appreciate all of our volunteer fireman that give their time to serve our community. However, I do not appreciate the article submitted above by our so called Fire Chief. I don’t know what went wrong, but I feel the community was let down by arriving to a locked storm shelter in the middle of a Tornado Warning. You would think that the Fire Chief after hearing that the storm shelter was not opened properly would submit an article to offer some kind of apology to the community or something since it is clear that his department IS responsible for it being locked (accidental or not), but instead he submits an article that should be an embarrassment to the entire Union Grove volunteer fire department by making terrible comments such as “Until we volunteer our time we don’t have the right to complain about how things are handled”, and he also said that other county divisions including Bill Collum (EMA Director) gets paid. Those comments make it sound like he doesn’t even really enjoy volunteering he’s just carrying on a family tradition b/c his granddaddy did it. The way he blasted the community was very tacky & unprofessional.

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  • zoninggirl

    I, a resident in the Union Grove area, am absolutely appalled by this response from someone who supposedly has volunteered his time to head up our local “volunteer” fire department! Chief Ellison, it would be wise of you to get your facts correct before responding to complaints regarding the response of your department during the recent tornado outbreak. Clearly, and by your own admission, you were not there. I, sir, was there and your description of the events that morning are so totally incorrect, I’m surprised you would even put out a writeup such as this. First of all, “thank you” for opening the shelter earlier that evening. It was obvious that you were looking out for our safety, more than I can say for your other 2 keyholding members. However, knowing the door was prone to lock and having no less and 3 days notice this was to be a serious outbreak, you are telling me that since you are a volunteer department you couldn’t have had one person assigned to be responsible that ONE night?? The ONE and only outbreak in the 8 months since April 2011?? Also the statement “the members of the department went to responding when the warning was issued” is factually incorrect. The FACTS are that the warning was issued before 5 AM and your “member” arrived at 5:17 AM, he was one of the 3 key holders of that facility. He didn’t respond to the warning, he responded to a page from the Sheriff’s office who I contacted at 5:05 AM after realizing we were locked out and left to the mercy of the storm. He admitted to us that he got the PAGE “10 minutes ago” and finally drove the 1 mile to the facility. Further to say we “have to have a little patience because we have to get our own families up and going as well” seems to say that the needs of the community would come only after your members feels it convenient to come and let us in. Are you telling me the keyholder “member” couldn’t get his family up and travel the 1 mile to the station in less time than it took me to do the same and drive 3 miles??? Fact is, 20 to 25 minutes in a storm tracking 135 MPH winds and what was finally declared as an F2 tornado doesn’t warrant 25 minutes of patience! And, once he arrived, you member told us in a not so nice tone that he “has a family and a job too”. And yes, like your editorial, he also whined about not being paid to do this. Excuse me, but last time I heard of a volunteer fire department, it was just that “volunteer”.

    I moved here 13 years ago and have always supported any fundraising my fire department asked of me. I trusted and believed in my fire department. I work with firefighters and I know what it takes and we do appreciate the work they do. However, you (and 2 other members) accepted the key to this facility and asked the citizens of this community to trust you with our lives. By way of this editorial, it appears that you only mean to serve us when it’s convenient for your members. Your statement “you should not be able to complain about how certain things need to be handled” is not only insulting, it is down right rude. If this is the opinion you have of the citizens YOU volunteered to serve, you should step down immediately.

    In closing, the term “you cannot please everybody”….. Chief, this wasn’t a picnic that your member was late in passing out the barbeque; this was a serious storm packing 135 MPH winds. This wouldn’t have been an issue had your members done what they pledged to do when they accepted the key to the facility. To place their convenience over the lives of the approximately 30 people who sought shelter that night is irresponsible to say the least.

    I sincerely hope that our County Commissioners take a close look at this situation before contracting to build more of these things. If many more facilities have this same condescending opinion, at some point people are going to be killed because our volunteer fire department simply didn’t have time to come and I guess we had too much patience.

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